TAYLORSVILLE — A local couple never separated for more than eight consecutive days in their 70-year marriage are working to make sure they can stay together until death ultimately separates them.

James “Raymond” Rooks said he knew from the moment he saw Velma Francis that he would never leave her side — for richer or poorer, or in sickness or health.

The lovebirds said their vows Dec. 23, 1944, and have kept true to them.

Eight years after their marriage, the Rookses moved from a small city in Kentucky to Edinburgh. After another 12 years, they moved a few miles away to Taylorsville, their home now for 50 years.

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They lived on Raymond Rooks’ income from Arvin Industries in Columbus. Velma Rooks worked as a homemaker, raising their four children.

Raymond, 87, and Velma, 86, have managed to stay in the familiar surroundings of their home despite difficult times this past year, thanks to care provided by family members who live nearby and the traveling staff of Our Hospice of South Central Indiana in Columbus.

It’s a place they cherish.

The walls are covered with framed memories — not just of their children, but also nine grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and a 2-year-old great-great-granddaughter.

Two of the four Rooks children live locally, while all four continue to visit their parents often.

“The oldest grandchild, let’s see here, that’s Amy and she was born March 13 in 1967,” Raymond Rooks cites from memory, with Velma’s help.

If their memory fails them, they keep a birthday “cheat sheet” pinned among the picture frames in their living room, just in case.

“Yes, March 13 – you’re exactly right!” says Nathan Greene, the Rookses’ chaplain, as he checks the sheet.

The hospice team

Greene is a member of the interdisciplinary hospice team assigned to care for the Rookses in their home.

Raymond Rooks lives with emphysema, heart problems, and dysphagia — a difficulty swallowing, while Velma Rooks experiences various side effects from electrolyte imbalance in her brain.

Last August, the children researched at-home care options as it became difficult to balance their work and the declining health of their parents. Coming to terms with ongoing palliative care was difficult for Raymond and called for an end-of-life care conversation initiated by his children.

The couple chose Our Hospice of South Central Indiana Inc., the nonprofit community-based service providing palliative care to individuals with advanced illnesses.

Because their youngest daughter, Cathy Simmons, lives just around the corner, she is able to act as a primary caregiver for her parents with hospice staffers checking in five days a week.

Now the couple said they can’t imagine being without their trained hospice team.

Of the 180 patients served by Our Hospice, the majority are cared for in their homes. Although staying together is a priority for the Rookses, staying in their home is also essential to their quality of life.

“It’s wonderful that they come in and do all the testing, all the blood work,” Raymond Rooks said. “It’d be altogether different if they weren’t around. We’d get by, but it’d be hard.”

Social worker Heather Means explained that the visit schedule is determined by patients’ needs and requests. Five hospice specialists visit them each week.

The home health aide visits five days a week. The nurse visits two or three times a week. And the social worker, chaplain and a volunteer each go once.

“They love everybody,” Means said of the Rookses. “They are so appreciative of the services and really trust us. They make our job easy.”

The length of each visit depends on the patients’ health and mood.  If Raymond or Velma is struggling, physically or emotionally, the visits can last up to an hour or longer. A variety of activities, chores and medical therapy are performed during each visit: Blood work, health assessment, spiritual reflection, homemaking tasks and life-review conversations.

“Their goal is to stay home and to stay together; we talk about how we can continue to maintain that,” Means said. “We’ll also talk about their feelings as far as how their independence has decreased and changes in their physical abilities.”

On a day that features a houseful of hospice helpers, Raymond Rooks made a point to say thanks to each.

“They’ve been wonderful to take care of us,” he said, going around the room pointing each out. “They come in and bathe us, wash the dishes, do everything.”

Managing pain, providing comfort

Registered nurse Theresa Ford is director of clinical services at Our Hospice. She emphasizes why the interdisciplinary team of specialists is the core to meeting patient goals while managing their pain and comfort.

“That’s really what hospice is about – making them peaceful so they can truly enjoy each other in the time they have left,” she said. “We work really hard to promote what hospice is, that it’s really not a scary place.”

The dedicated staff makes it possible to provide the 24-hour on-call services, said Ford, a benefit the Rookses have used before, once at 3 a.m.

Another advantage to choosing hospice care is the payment options that are available. Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits and private insurance cover most services provided. If a certain type of service is not covered, Our Hospice uses funds donated through memorial and private donations and foundations and grants.

Such a practice allows Our Hospice to provide care for all patients in 15 counties, no matter their ability to pay, said Suzie Singer, manager of planning and marketing.

A life with no regrets

With a long lives behind them, the Rookses don’t have many regrets. They’ve loved each other since day one and felt it was all they needed.

Raymond Rooks laid eyes on his future wife in 1944 at Freedom Church of God in their hometown of Columbia, Kentucky. Details from that day were retold as if they happened yesterday.

His mother, Myrtie Bryant-Rooks, had recently died, bringing the small community together for her funeral at the church on March 12 that year. That’s when he spotted Velma.

“I had never seen her before,” Raymond Rooks remembers, as he reached for Velma’s fragile hand. “I thought she was the prettiest thing I ever seen. I’m serious. I think it was love at first sight.”

After meeting each other the following Sunday in church, Velma remembers the handsome boy that talked a lot. He would go on and on while she just listened, Velma said.

“I guess you could say I made the first move,” Raymond Rooks said as she playfully patted his knee.

Velma remembers sneaking around to see Raymond: writing letters, fibbing about where she was going, and hiding mementos so their love for each other wouldn’t be discovered and thwarted.

“My mother found a letter from him. That’s how she found out that we planned to marry Valentine’s Day,” Velma said.

In an effort to fool her disappointed mother, Raymond and Velma moved the wedding up to Dec. 23 — and they married at ages 16 and 17.

It took some time for Velma’s mother to give her blessing, he said, but in the end she treated him like a son.

“Make sure you love who you’re gettin’,” Raymond Rooks advised when asked to offer marriage advice. “Be certain of it. When problems come along, solve ‘em, don’t run from ‘em.”

Velma Rooks nods and says they make an effort to never go to bed mad at each other.

“You never know what can happen in the night,” she said.

About Our Hospice of South Central Indiana

The main office and in-patient facility is at 2626 E. 17th St. in Columbus, with two additional offices in Greensburg and North Vernon.

Eligibility for hospice services

Every patient must meet a list of criteria before admitted for hospice care. First, the individual must express that he/she wants the benefit of hospice. The patient’s physician also must establish six months of life remaining, if the condition were left untreated. And the patient must continue to show decline.

These conditions are consistent for in-patient care and at-home services.

Source: Our Hospice of South Central Indiana